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Higginbotham had in his service an Irishman of doubtful character, whom he had hired without a recommendation, on the score of economy.
“May I be hanged myself,” exclaimed Dominicus Pike aloud, on reaching the top of a lonely hill, "if I believe old Higginbotham is unhanged, till I see him with my own eyes, and hear it from his own mouth! And as he's a real shaver, I'll have the minister or some other responsible man for an endorser.”
It was growing dusk when he reached the toll-house on Kimballton turnpike, about a quarter of a mile from the village of this name. His little mare was fast bringing him up with a man on horseback, who trotted through the gate a few rods in advance of him, nodded to the toll-gatherer, and kept on towards the village. Dominicus was acquainted with the toll-man, and while making change, the usual remarks on the weather passed between them.
“I suppose,” said the pedler, throwing back his whip-lash to bring it down like a feather on the mare's flank, “you have not seen anything of old Mr. Higginbotham within a day or two ?”
“Yes," answered the toll-gatherer ; "he passed the gate just before you drove up, and yonder he rides now, if you can see him through the dusk. He's been to Woodfield this afternoon, attending a sheriff's sale there. The old man generally shakes hands and has a little chat with me; but to-night he nodded, as if to say, 'Charge my toll,' and jogged on, for wherever he goes, he must always be at home by eight o'clock.”
“So they tell me,” said Dominicus.
“I never saw a man look so yellow and thin as the squire does,” continued the toll-gatherer. “Says I to myself to-night, he's more like a ghost or an old mummy than good flesh and blood.”
The pedler strained his eyes through the twilight, and could just discern the horseman now far ahead on the village road. He seemed to recognise the rear of Mr. Higginbotham; and through the evening shadows, and amid the dust from the horse's feet, the figure appeared dim and unsubstantial, as if the shape of the mysterious old man were faintly moulded of darkness and grey light. Dominicus shivered.
“Mr. Higginbotham has come back from the other world, by way of Kimballton turnpike," thought he.
He shook the reins and rode forward, keeping about the same distance in the rear of the grey old shadow, till the latter was concealed by a bend of the road. On reaching this point the pedler no longer saw the man on horseback, but found himself at the head of the village street, not far from a number of stores and two taverns, clustered around the meeting-house steeple. On his left was a stone wall and a gate, the boundary of a wood-lot, beyond which lay an orchard; further still, a mowing-field, and, last of all, a house. These were the premises of Mr. Higginbotham, whose dwelling stood beside the old highway, but had been left in the background by the Kimballton turnpike, and Dominicus knew the place; and the little mare stopped short by instinct, for he was not conscious of tightening the reins.
“For the soul of me I cannot get by this gate,” said he, trembling I never shall be my own man again till I see whether Mr. Higginbotham is hanging on the St. Michael pear-tree !”
He leaped from the cart, gave the reins a turn round the gate-post, and ran along the green path of the wood-lot as if Old Nick were chasing behind. Just then the village clock tolled eight, and as each deep stroke fell, Dominicus gave a fresh bound and flew faster than before, till, dim in the solitary centre of the orchard, he saw the fated peartree. One great branch stretched from the old contorted trunk across the path and threw the darkest shadow on that one spot. But something seemed to struggle beneath the branch !
The pedler had never pretended to more courage than befits a man of peaceable occupation, nor could he account for his valour on this awful emergency.
Certain it is,
however, that he rushed forward, prostrated a sturdy Irishman with the butt end of his whip, and found—not indeed hanging on the St. Michael's pear-tree, but trembling beneath it, with a halter round his neck—the old, identical Mr. Higginbotham.
“Mr. Higginbotham," said Dominicus tremulously, , “you're an honest man, and I'll take your word for it. Have you been hanged or not?”
If the riddle be not already guessed, a few words will explain the simple machinery by which this coming event was made to cast its shadow before. Three men had plotted the robbery and murder of Mr. Higginbotham ; two of them successively lost courage and fled, each delaying the crime one night by their disappearance; the third was in the act of perpetration when a champion, blindly obeying the call of fate, like the heroes of old romance, appeared in the person of Dominicus Pike.
It only remains to say that Mr. Higginbotham took the pedler into high favour, sanctioned his addresses to the pretty schoolmistress, and settled his whole property on their children, allowing themselves the interest. In due time the old gentleman capped the climax of his favours by dying a Christian death, in bed, since which melancholy event Dominicus Pike has removed from Kimballton and established a large tobacco factory in my native village.
GOING TO CALIFORNIA.
EAR me!” exclaimed Mrs. Partington sorrowfully,
“how much a man will bear, and how far he will go, to get the soddered dross, as Parson Martin called it when he refused the beggar a sixpence, for fear it might lead him into extravagance! Everybody is going to California and Chagrin arter gold. Cousin Jones and the three Smiths have gone; and Mr. Chip, the carpenter, has left his wife and seven children, and a blessed old mother-in-law, to seek his fortin, too. This is the strangest yet, and I don't see how he could have done it; it looks so ongrateful to treat Heaven's blessings so lightly. But there we are told that the love of money is the root of all evil, and how true it is ! for they are now rooting arter it, like pigs arter ground-nuts. Why, it is a perfect money mania among everybody!”